To paraphrase Pete Townsend and The Who, I am now getting old (50 – those of you who think this is youthful are free to comment) and haven’t taken the precaution of dying yet. One of the joys of ageing is having a revised sense of proportion on where shame lies: well, that’s my story and I’m not budging. But talk about Generations X, Y and Z abounds. (For my fellow old fogies, I checked Wikipedia before the gout finally prevented fine mouse control: the next batch will be referred to as Generation Alpha.) But are these generations – or just generalisations? Demographic bracketing is all the rage – an influence both of marketing and of computerisation (where database structures find defined lists of values easier to crunch) – but how far does it help us? Does discussing HR issues in terms of the ‘generations’ in the organisational mix clarify, or over-simplify?

At newspaper column level, we giggle at Western astrology for dividing the world’s population into 12 personalities based purely on the time of year we were born. Generation labelling, seen from that angle, is like a much vaguer version of Chinese astrology, which groups us into years. I appreciate that both astrological systems are infinitely more subtle in their detailed workings, but the rationalist in me still wants to shout something blunt in response. (While you’re commenting on ageism, by the way, it’s fine to point out that’s just typical of a Gemini, Metal Rat, Gemini Rising, Moon in Libra …)

Back in 1973, Bob Dylan sang “Ma, take this badge off of me/I can’t use it anymore”, but it seems we still love labels. Without trying too hard (middle age laziness, probably), I found two blogs about Generation Z and their defining characteristics, one by Sirona Consulting and one at Personnel Today. Reading them, I experienced a disjuncture between their categorisations and my own working experience. In this role, I sit opposite a 22 year old; in another I work closely with a 19 year old. They are distinctly different people, both highly au fait with technology, but then so is a 64 year old friend who designs virtual learning environments and writes her own computing languages when none of the ones to hand will do the job. Guess which one listens to 1970s heavy metal for pleasure? (Answer: the 19 year old.) Guess which one is keenest in putting different aspects of working life online? (Answer: the 64 year old.)

Just as I am brought up short by the degree of generalisation, I’m slightly confused by some of the arguments implicit in the assertions. Taking two of Victoria Williams’ points at Personnel Today:

High salaries will be less crucial as mortgages, bank loans and even private car ownership is consigned to the history books. “

I appreciate the country is economically diverse, but in North Buckinghamshire, high salaries are just as crucial to meet high costs of private renting. Mortgages have been ‘consigned to the history books’ by a combination of comparative lack of availability (you can’t borrow what no-one will lend you) and house prices (despite their recent fall). Outside cities with good public transport infrastructures, private car ownership remains (indeed, given probable public transport funding cuts, will become increasingly) essential.

An essentially transient workforce, Gen Z will move to where the work is, rather than expect to find employment in their home town.”

Quite possibly true, but again are we looking at cause or effect? Looking at current unemployment figures for 18-25 year olds, many will conclude that expecting to find work in their home town is like expecting to marry into the Royal Family. Commoners (a technical definition, by the way) can do it, but it’s statistically improbable. Generation Z aren’t moving to find work because they were born in a particular period; they’re moving to find work because they have to.

I don’t find the arguments at SironaSays much more convincing. Take this one for example:

They will expect to use the internet for everything, certainly for finding a job.”

Actually, I expect to use the internet for pretty much everything too. I’m not being youthful or having a mid-life crisis in doing so: I’m doing so because shopping, recruitment, entertainment and many other aspects of life have migrated to the web. I buy guitar strings online, for example, as the nearest music shop is now 10 miles away. As a foodie, I buy many less mainstream ingredients online, but this is because I live in a new town with a shopping mall whose rent/rates regime makes it nigh on impossible for small retailers to survive. If the supermarkets stocked sumac or dried barberries, I’d pick them up with the teabags (it would be easier and quicker, and I would save on postage) but I don’t have the option.

We all – regardless of our age – live in worlds and societies that are not of our individual making: our outlooks are shaped in part by our responses to society and to circumstance. But I guess that my biggest worry about this arbitrary bracketing – particularly coming from people working in the broad HR arena – is what it says about diversity. The Personnel Today article argues that, when it comes to Generation Z:

 “Diversity and equality will be a fundamental way of doing business, not a feel-good perk”

To which there (at least) two responses:

  • The make-up of society, social attitudes and legislation have changed; the workforce is not only more likely to be ethnically more diverse, but also in terms of other aspects such as faith or sexuality. The increased scope of anti-discrimination legislation also means, for example, that people whose differences are not obviously visual will feel both more able and more entitled to be open about them. We’ve moved on from Till Death Us Do Part.
  • More fundamentally, how does tarring a whole arbitrary generation with the same broad brush serve this diversity proposition. Is “you’re saying that because your 19” an improvement on” you’re saying that because you’re African/gay/a Hindu”?

I’m reminded of a posting at another blog (Generation Bowie – the original flexible workforce? at  Mervyn Dinnen’s T Recs)– even if I ignored the conventions of blog protocol by commenting on it nearly a year after it was published. I hope I’m not misrepresenting Mervyn’s argument, which seems essential to be that those growing up in the 1970s were shaped to have flexible approaches to the world. Or as he, in part, put it:

Let’s accept that the Baby Boomers grew up in the 60s, and Generation X in the 80s…yet in between there is a whole decade of very different influences that are usually ignored as being a crossover between the two. Yet meet anyone who grew up in that decade and you will find someone who is flexible and adaptable.

Anyone growing up in the UK in the 70s will tell you that this was a tough decade, underpinned by constant change, fluctuating fortunes, unrest, violence and cultural extremes…4 elections, 4 Prime Ministers, 3 day weeks, bombs on the streets, mob violence, industrial unrest and a whole spectrum of music and fashion trends […]

In a decade of such change it’s hardly surprising that people who grew up then have had careers underpinned by change…interview someone who was a teen in the 70s and it’s likely that they will have had many different careers, utilising a whole range of skills and competencies, and their development has been marked by change and a restless quest for new experiences.”

As you can see from my comments at Mervyn’s blog (scroll down to the end of his post), I’m not convinced that even the ‘shared experience’ argument is enough to bracket a large and diverse group of people together. Some people I was at school with have had single employer (or at least single sector) careers. Others have patchwork CVs driven as much by eras of short-term contracting or fluctuating unemployment as personal goals. We can all shop around – and much more quickly and cleverly online than before – but we can’t buy what isn’t there. (Would we label all Eastern Europeans born after 1989 as a homogenous group? Ok, they’ll probably be very different in outlook to their parents (but who isn’t?) but are Poles the same as Latvians or Bulgarians?

Working with people older and younger than myself over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever attributed their personal drivers purely to their age. Sure, someone in their 20s will be looking to establish a career (or at least build a CV), but that’s how recruitment works: even online (actually, especially online), your CV is the first foot in the door. Are they being 24, or are they just playing the game as the rules have been set out? And does seeing me as “50” define me any better than defining by another other single attribute, when I might share a greater number of attributes with any arbitrarily chosen 27 year old woman? (Responses welcome, but be aware I have several lawyers on my Live Messenger contacts list …)

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